Study: Law school diversity fell ‘substantially’ after state-level affirmative action bans

Racial diversity decreased at law schools subject to state-level affirmative action bans, according to a recent study from three law professors at Yale University, New York University, and Northwestern University, Reuters reports. The study is “the first comprehensive empirical study” of the effects of affirmative action on racial diversity at U.S. law schools, the researchers say.

Measuring the impact of affirmative action bans

To explore the impact of state-level affirmative action bans, the researchers looked at enrollment data from every U.S. law school between 1980—when the study says law schools began to include information on the number of minority students they enrolled—and 2021. 

They focused on 23 public law schools across 12 states, including California, Arizona, and Michigan, where race-based affirmative action bans had been enacted since 1996.

The study calculates that affirmative action bans reduced the share of minority students at those public law schools by between 10% and 17%. That decline was even larger at “top 20” law schools (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report), where the share of minority students plummeted between 36% and 47% following state-level affirmative action bans. Black and Latine students accounted for almost all of the declines.

The fallout from affirmative action bans may be felt well beyond higher education, researchers say. Top law schools are often feeders to leadership positions in government and private industry. “Lawyers make up a tenth of CEOs, a third of state governors, more than a third of U.S. House members, more than half of U.S. senators, and almost all judges and prosecutors,” say the researchers. “A decline in racial diversity in law schools, particularly elite law schools, may lead to a decline in racial diversity in these key leadership roles.”

What’s ahead for law school diversity?

While the study offers a window into state-level dynamics, there are no historical examples of what may follow a nationwide prohibition of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions.

While overall diversity at U.S. law schools has been increasing alongside the diversity of the nation, minority students are still underrepresented compared to their share of the overall U.S. population. Since 1980, the share of the population made up of racial and ethnic minorities has risen from around 20% to around 40%, according to the U.S. Census. During this same period, the share of minority law school students increased from 11% to 33%; Black and Latine students are especially underrepresented relative to their share of the U.S. population.

The impact of the Supreme Court decision remains unclear, as schools are still in the middle of admitting students under the nationwide ban. However, recent data indicate that the Supreme Court ruling has not discouraged students of color from applying to law schools, Reuters says. The entering class of Fall 2023 was the most racially and ethnically diverse class in history. This was the third year in a row that the incoming law school class reached record-high racial and ethnic diversity, according to the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). LSAC data also shows this year’s law school applicant pool as the most diverse on record, according to Reuters. The number of Black and Latine applicants rose by 6% and 8%, respectively, compared to last year.

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